WARRENTON — Students at Warrenton Grade School, many with parents in tow, socialized outside the front door and inside at tables in the cafeteria, waiting to start their first day back to class on Tuesday.
By 7:50 a.m., the parking lot shut down to all cars as it filled in with buses dropping more students off. By 8 a.m., students and parents were packed like sardines in the school’s academic wing, getting acquainted with schedules, lockers and teachers.
The grade school welcomed nearly 720 preschoolers-through-eighth graders back for the new school year, less than the estimated 800 the enrollment will balloon to when kindergartners start later in the week, but still far beyond the 540 students the building was designed to serve.
Last year, the grade school was the fifth-most populous in Oregon serving kindergarten-through-eighth grade. The only schools larger were in the Portland metro area and Eugene.
The grade school has added five portable classrooms outside the main building to accommodate growth, while turning closets into offices, libraries into multipurpose rooms and courtyards into classes.
The overcrowding, along with the danger of being in the tsunami inundation zone, is why the school district is asking voters for a $38.5 million bond in November. The bond would fund the purchase of a master campus and a new middle school. Subsequent bond measures over the next 14 years would pay to move Warrenton High School, then the rest of the grade school.
Tom Rogozinski, the grade school principal for the past five years, remembers his first report to the school board, when he oversaw fewer than 650 students. Since then, the school has been adding anywhere between 15 and 25 students a year, he said. Where the school district used to run average grade sizes in the 60s, eighth grade is now the least populous with about 80 kids. And while classroom space has expended, the support areas like gyms, cafeterias, bathrooms and lockers have not.
“It all syncs in,” he said of how the school manages so many kids. “It might not be optimal, but it all fits into something sustainable. But there is a limit.”
The grade school opens the cafeteria a half hour earlier than the rest of the campus for parents to drop off kids early and avoid the traffic jams on Ninth Street when the school opens and the parking lot shuts down to all but school buses.
The ballet of balancing the schedules of so many grades is never more apparent than in the cafeteria.
After providing free breakfast, the school’s food service staff has about a one-hour break before running two grades at a time through 15- to 20-minute lunches before recess. While the layout and operations have been finely honed, the school simply needs more capacity to ease the strain on kitchen staff, said Vice Principal Sean O’Malley.
The school district saved money on its portables by not including plumbing. To ease the strain on water fountains shared by up to 400 students, the district installed water coolers in the portables and gave kids water bottles.
To ease the crush at the end of the day, the school staggers release times. It has also been adding more after-school programs to enrich students’ learning while easing peak afternoon congestion, Rogozinski said.
“The investments have been awesome for our kids to keep the programming at a high level,” he said. “The kids are resilient, but eventually that growth will impact what we’re doing.”
The school district has zeroed in on a 58-acre parcel on Dolphin Avenue south of Walmart for a new K-12 master campus. If the bond passes, the district will begin the discussion with staff and the community about how the campus will look, said Mark Jeffery, the superintendent in Warrenton.
“The big thing I think we spend a lot of time talking about is traffic flow, and not just designing it for the middle school, but laying the whole thing out,” Jeffery said.
Another aspect will be whether to have one large school building or separate campuses, Jeffery said.
Regardless of whether the bond passes, the glut of students at the grade school is slowly moving toward the high school. Now at about 260 students, Jeffery sees the high school ballooning to around 350 students in the next few years, taking on the portable classrooms and similar issues of overcrowding.